Highlanders' season sunk by Brumbies

Brumbies hooker Billy Pollard crosses to score against the Highlanders. Photo: Getty
Brumbies hooker Billy Pollard crosses to score against the Highlanders. Photo: Getty
The Highlanders’ season is over following a 32-16 loss to the Brumbies in the Super Rugby quarterfinal in Canberra last night.

They were far from disgraced, and they were well in contention at halftime, but they faded a little as the game progressed.

The Highlanders made the Brumbies look quite frustrated in the first half.

Captain Billy Harmon, lock Fabian Holland and prop Ethan de Groot put in huge shifts in the pack.

The Highlanders pulverised the home side in a couple of scrums, and capitalised on some poor discipline.

But when the Brumbies kicked into gear, they looked a much better side, scoring either side of halftime to take control.

They built momentum on the back of some devastating charges from loose forward star Rob Valetini, while outside backs Tom Wright and Andy Muirhead always looked dangerous.

There were six lead changes in a rather cagey first half that featured more penalties and mistakes than moments of brilliance but was nevertheless a compelling watch.

While the Brumbies played a lot of the rugby, and scored the opening try when some lovely crisp passing found Muirhead on the wing, they also found themselves on the wrong end of referee Angus Gardner’s whistle too often.

And while the Highlanders did not often look like carving the home side to shreds, they scrambled wonderfully on defence and were utterly dominant at scrum time.

The Highlanders also showed admirable composure to soak up everything the Brumbies had to throw at them then move quickly downfield to get into scoring position.

That scoring was generally thanks to super boot Cameron Millar – he landed all three of his penalty attempts in the first half – but the Highlanders produced one lovely moment that led to a try.

From a lineout seven minutes before the break, the ball was spread quickly left, where winger Jona Nareki showed his gas before ploughing through two defenders and over the line.

That made it 16-10, which would have been a confidence-boosting lead for the Highlanders at halftime.

Famous last words.

The Brumbies got into the red zone when the hooter went, and hooker Billy Pollard rumbled over for the try.

They can be greedy sods, those hookers, and Pollard grabbed his double straight after halftime.

You sensed the outcome of this game now rested heavily on the following 10 minutes.

It was a sinking feeling, then, when the Brumbies scored a try that was either rather fortuitous or simply splendid.

Noah Lolesio lofted over a cross kick and Muirhead showed the trapping skills of an elite footballer, nudging the ball ahead twice then leaping over the line.

A six-point lead for the Highlanders had suddenly become a 13-point deficit, and they looked stung.

Nareki produced a heads-up play when he refused to buy a dummy and saved a certain try by pushing Brumbies fullback Wright into touch.

That play, and some more scrambling defence in the subsequent minutes, gave the Highlanders a lift.

But what they needed were points, and quickly.

Instead, Lolesio gave the Brumbies a 16-point buffer, and Wright kicked a 50-22, and the clock was ticking on the Highlanders’ season.

The Blues will host the Brumbies in one Super Rugby final, and the Hurricanes and Chiefs will clash in the other in Wellington.

The scores

Brumbies 32 (Billy Pollard 2, Andy Muirhead 2 tries; Noah Lolesio 3 con, 2 pen), Highlanders 16 (Jona Nareki try; Cameron Millar con, 3 pen). Halftime: Brumbies 17-16.